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IBMT tour of Aragon battlefields: 16-22 October 2015

By Pauline Fraser

 

‘Tomorrow we’ll have coffee in Huesca’ we called the tour of the Aragon, the title capturing something of the blighted hope of the milicianos in 1936 and 1937.

Forward to October 2014 and our coach party of 30 duly drove to Huesca to enjoy that legendary cup of coffee, remembering the many Republican fighters who never made it. No problem this time: the occupation of the town by Franco’s hostile forces was just a sour taste in the mouth of memory. 

Looking down on the city from the Republican trenches high above at Tierz, we listened to the words of John Cornford and Margot Heinemann, as their poems were read by Jane Bernal, Margot’s daughter. 

All those months of planning and double-checking paid off and arrangements went smoothly. We missed a visit to the Ruta Orwell trenches near Robres, but the time we spent at Gurrea de Gallego, near the spot where artist Felicia Browne was killed, more than compensated. 

Glenda Browne had come from Australia to commemorate her distant cousin. She waved a Republican flag from the railway bridge that Felicia’s militia group had partly destroyed, so delaying vital fascist supplies. Then we moved to another bridge, over the River Sotón. Glenda read, movingly, of Felicia’s life. As we watched the wild flowers we had plucked, borne away on the beautiful grey-green waters, we remembered her death also.

As a more lasting memorial, Glenda presented, on behalf of the IBMT, a framed reproduction of Felicia’s drawing of the miliciana, María Petra, featured on the front cover of the previous newsletter, to María Luz, Socialist Party mayor of Tardienta, the little town where Felicia’s militia unit was billeted.  

I met the historians who had tolerated the bad Spanish of my emails for months with a mixture of trepidation and excitement. From Victor Pardo we learnt something of the importance of Huesca in Republican history. Two young captains made a premature bid to overthrow the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera and end the decadent reign of Alfonso XIII. They paid with their lives.

Standing by the trenches at Santa Quiteria, overlooking Tardienta, Ramón Hernando pointed out the aqueduct and the railway, strategic positions in the war. Then, encouraged by Almudena Cros, President of AABI (Spanish International Brigades friendship group), acting as interpreter, he told us how his father had kept his unit together after the fall of the Republic and the retreat into France, to return to continue guerrilla activities until the mid-1950s. 

We visited Belchite, fought over three times during the war and left in ruins by order of Franco to show, as he thought, the crimes of ‘the reds’. For those of us who remembered the previous free-for-all, the new guided tour was an improvement. Our young guide told us how her grandmother, then aged 12, had been evacuated from the town, wearing all her clothes despite the scorching September heat. 

More time in Belchite meant less for our meeting with Antonio Jardiel, the local historian of Quinto. From the ruined church in the town he showed us the dauntingly steep slopes of Purburrel Hill, only ‘lightly held’, the British Battalion was told. We imagined them climbing that slope, weighed down by their rifles, ammunition and all the accoutrements of war. It took two days and the loss of three volunteers, including Commander Peter Daly, to capture the hill.

At Caspe, we were joined by archaeologist Ana Marti, a long-standing friend and IBMT member, who swept us away with a superlative illustrated account of the Lincolns in the Great Retreats. The following day, we assembled at ‘Bob Merriman’s House’, the building used as the Lincolns HQ. Just days after they had established the base, Commander Merriman was killed. 

Ana led us in the footsteps of the Lincolns as we struggled through unmarked brush to discover rough stone shelters called chabolas, hidden away in the undergrowth. They were used as living space, as protection from aerial bombardment and for munitions stores, as the troops got ready for the Ebro offensive. 

There were museums to visit too: at Robres, Fayón, and Gandesa, each of them throwing light on the war as it moved through Aragon to the Battle of the Ebro.

And then there was our coach driver. Who could know, on the first morning we met him, efficient and self-effacing, that by the time we said goodbye almost a week later, we would have found in Pere Guinart, not only the best coach driver south of the Pyrenees, but a friend and comrade too.

He told us, with pride and sadness, of his Republican grandfather. He had fought bravely in the Popular Army, then, in exile on the freezing, wind-swept beaches of southern France, chose to return to Spain, whatever the risks. He fought on and spent some years in Franco’s prisons. 

When we parted, his grandson thanked us on behalf of our forebears who had come to Spain to help the Republic.

Our driver was the bedrock of the whole tour, while Almudena Cros held it together. An art historian as interpreter? Hardly a sensible career move from Almudena’s point of view, but our shared passion for the Republic outweighed all. 

Almu was there wherever she was needed: interpreting, explaining, coaxing that little bit extra out of our historians.

Thanks to everyone involved for making the tour such an outstanding success. 

 

Pauline Fraser was the co-organiser of ‘Tomorrow we’ll have coffee in Huesca’ with Charles Jepson. She is a Trustee of the IBMT.

A slideshow of images from the tour is on the IBMT Flickr site: https://www.flickr.com/photos/ibmt/15675176539 

A video of the Aragon tour will be available on IBMT YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/user/IBMTnews